How to write a research proposal

Research Proposal
A guide to preparing a good research proposal
Applying for a PhD or research master’s degree and not sure where to start with your research proposal? Follow our guide.
What is a research proposal?

A research proposal describes what you will investigate, why it is important, and how you will conduct your research. A research proposal presents the central issues or questions that you intend to address with clarity and definition. It should also make a case for why your question is significant and what value it will bring to your discipline. It outlines the general area of study within which your research falls, referring to the current state of knowledge and any recent debates on the topic.

Think of your research proposal as a tool that will help you clarify your idea and make conducting your research easier. However, as your ideas evolve, your proposed research is likely to change.


Academic Research Proposal
Why is it important?

Research proposals are significant because it formally outlines your intended research. Which means you need to provide details on how you will go about your research, including:

  • your approach and methodology
  • timeline and feasibility
  • all other considerations needed to progress your research, such as resources.

Academics often have to write research proposals to get funding for their projects. As a student, you might have to write a research proposal as part of a graduate school application, or prior to starting your thesis or dissertation. A proposal can also serve to demonstrate why your project is worth pursuing to a school, supervisor, or funder.

How long should it be?

The length of a research proposal can vary quite a bit. Usually, it’s between 2,500–4,000 words long, but always check the requirements of your school, degree, and your supervisor or research coordinator.

Presenting your idea clearly and concisely demonstrates that you can write this way – an attribute of a potential research candidate that is valued by assessors.

What should be included in my research proposal?

Note: The format of a research proposal varies between fields, academic institutions, departments, but proposals usually include at least these elements.

1. Title Page

The proposal will usually have a title page. It should include:

  • Your institution and department
  • The proposed title of your project
  • Your name
  • Your supervisor’s name
  • Date
Your title should give a clear indication of your proposed research approach or key question. You may also consider including an abstract and table of contents if your proposal is very long.


2. Background and Rationale

This section includes:

  • introduction to your topic
  • the background and issues of your proposed research
  • identify your discipline
  • a short literature review
  • a summary of key debates and developments in the field (problem statement)
3. Research Question(s)

The proposal should set out the central aims and questions that will guide your research. Therefore, you should formulate these clearly, giving an explanation as to what problems and issues are to be explored and why they are worth exploring. You might find it helpful to prioritize one overreaching question, from which you can then derive a number of secondary research questions.

Reflecting on your key research questions is a good way to make sure that your project is feasible and sufficiently narrow.

4. Significance/Expected Contributions of the Study

The originality of your desired research should be clearly shown in the proposal. Therefore, it is important you discuss the significance and expected contributions of your research.

In this section, you should consider the following:

  • Why is your research question or hypothesis worth asking?
  • What impact will your research have on the discipline?
  • What will be the outcome of your research contribution?
  • Show how your research is innovative and original.
  • Will your research builds on and adds to existing literatures in the field, solve a problem, test a theory, or challenge an existing one?
  • Demonstrate both your current level of knowledge and how the pursuit of your question or hypothesis will create a new understanding and generate new information.
5. Research Methodology

Research methodology describes your overall approach, and the practical steps you will take to answer your research questions. Your research methodology should clearly outline the following themes:

  • the theoretical basis of your proposed research
  • the research approach (theoretical framework)
  • the research methods appropriate for the proposed research
  • a discussion of advantages as well as limits of particular approaches and methods
  • define your population, sample size and how you intend to include them in the study
  • data collection tools and techniques
  • a proposed conceptual framework to explain the key variables of your research
  • data analysis techniques. Explain how each of your research questions will be analyzed.
  • ethical considerations and how you will address these
6. Plan of Work & Time Schedule

You should include an outline of the various stages and corresponding time lines for developing and implementing the research, including writing up your actual research.

7. References

Do not forget to include:

  • a list of references to key articles and texts discussed within your proposal
  • a selection of sources appropriate to the proposed research

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